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New York Times, April 19, 2009 interview


The New York Times




April 19, 2009

Corner Office

Think ‘We’ for Best Results

Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times

Nell Minow is the editor and a co-founder of the Corporate Library, a provider of corporate governance research.



An Executive’s Favorite Films About Management


Q. When did you first start managing people?

A. I first began managing when I was 3, which was when my first sister was born. I then started managing my two younger sisters and went on from there. We had a lot of clubs, and I was always president and vice president — I didn’t want anyone closing in on me. Martha was the secretary and Mary was the treasurer. But my first professional management job was at O.M.B. [the Office of Management and Budget] when I was about 31.

Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned through the years?

A. The first time I ever really thought of myself as a leader was when I had a series of experiences in college, over a period of about 18 months, working on four different group projects. What I learned from that is that if you can get everyone to agree what the goal is, and to identify themselves with the successful achievement of that goal, then you’re pretty much there.

Early in my career, I also kept getting offered the job of special assistant to somebody. About half the time I turned it down, and about half the time I took it. All the times that I did it I enjoyed it very much and I learned a lot. When you are a special assistant, by definition you’re working for somebody who is otherwise many, many levels above you. And so I got to hear managers talk about the people they managed at a stage when I think most people are not privy to those conversations.

One thing that helped move my thinking forward was that I noticed in my first job that there was something very definitional in who was included in somebody’s “we” and who was included in somebody’s “them.” I found generally that the more expansive the assumptions were within somebody’s idea of who is “we” — the larger the group that you had included in that “we” — the better off everybody was. I started to really do my best to make sure that my notion of “we” was very expansive and to promote that idea among other people.

Q. What else?

A. I also learned a lot about being a manager from being a mom. When I first became a professional manager, I was pregnant for the first time, and so I grew up with both responsibilities at the same time. You have people saying the same two things to you all day long, which is, “Look what I did.” And you say: “It’s really good. Do some more.” Or they say, “He took my stuff.” And you have to say, “Tell him to give it back.”

You’re constantly trying, whether you’re raising children or dealing with employees, to get them to take responsibility for their own issues. I’m not saying that in a maternalistic way, just in a way of trying to get people to take responsibility for themselves, to do the best that they can and to learn as much as they can. In both cases, you’re trying to make people more independent and bring them along.

Q. The best book that you’ve read about management?

A. The book that influenced me the most about management was a book about parenting, called “How to Talk So Children Will Listen and Listen So Children Will Talk." It was a tremendously educational book for me. In terms of interpersonal skills in dealing with people of all ages and situations, there just isn’t a better book.

Q. What have you tried to do less of, over time?

A. One of my primary goals in life is to go to as few meetings as possible.

Q. So when you’re running a meeting, what do you do?

A. I like to be very, very clear at the beginning of the meeting — this is what we’re going to accomplish before the end of the meeting. People have agendas other than achieving that one goal for that meeting, and so you’ve got to just keep bringing people back to that. People that I work with know that I don’t like meetings and that they will do better to just keep it moving.

Q. What did you learn from your best or worst boss?

A. Bob Monks has been my business partner now for 23 years. He taught me two things that I think of all the time, and that I think are really important for any manager to keep in mind. One of them I learned when he was trying to persuade me to take on a big project that I thought I couldn’t do. And I said no, I can’t do it. And he asked me three times and all three times I said it’s just not something that I can do. And finally he said to me, “All right then, who do you think should supervise you on it?” And I said to myself, gee, there’s really nobody that I think knows more about this than I do, or is more capable than I am.

I thought, what a great way for him to bring me to that realization, instead of saying: “I don’t care. You have to do it. I’m making you do it. I’m your boss and I’m telling you to do it.” He helped me to understand that I could do it.

Another thing is, the day that he left I.S.S. [Institutional Shareholder Services] and left me to be president, the last thing he said to me was, “Watch how funny your jokes get.” And I must think about that three or four times a week. Not because I’m telling a joke and people are laughing, but because I need to remind myself constantly of the challenge that gets tougher and tougher as you get higher in the organization to get people to be honest with you. And that was just outstanding advice.

Q. Was there an insight that, looking back, set your career on a different trajectory?

A. I was in a very typical trajectory until I had kids, and then I had to really jettison all of my assumptions about what I was going to be doing with my life and think very creatively about my career. In a completely unexpected way, that opened up opportunities to me that I never would have had.

If I had not had to think about my career differently I could have stayed as a lawyer in the government, or I could have gone to a law firm and I would have had the kind of career that just about everybody that I knew had. But because I had to find a part-time job, I went to work for a start-up. I never would have thought about going to work for something that was not established and institutional.

And so I met Bob and we hit it off. We met when we were in the government and he said, “I’ve got this idea for a start-up.” I had never heard the words “corporate governance” before. But he seemed like a good guy, and he said, “We’re just getting started, so I don’t think we could use you more than three days a week.” And I said, “Well, that sounds good.” And that opened up a million new opportunities to me because I would never have known how much I love creating something if I hadn’t sort of backed into it that way.

Q. From your days as a shareholder activist analyzing poor-performing companies, what did you learn about how not to lead?

A. All of them had C.E.O.’s who took an enormous number of steps to make sure that no one would ever question them or second-guess them. At one of the companies we were involved in, we talked to a number of employees who all used the exact same phrase — that if you disagree with the boss, you get fired on the spot.

Q. Let’s talk about hiring. How do you do it?

A. I really look for a kind of a passionate curiosity. I think that is indispensable, no matter what the job is. You want somebody who is just alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more.

I once hired somebody who wasn’t looking for a job. A guy called me to ask me some questions about some corporate governance issue and I just thought he was so bright. I said, “I’ll put some materials together for you, and put them in the mail.” And he said, “Can I come over and pick them up right now?” And I said, “Wow, are you looking for a job?” And he said, “Well, I’m in an internship right now.”

And I said, “If you are looking for a job when the internship ends I’m going to hire you.” And I did. I just like that kind of initiative. That’s really important to me.

Another thing that’s important to me in hiring somebody is the ability to become very fully engaged with the company, and that is a real challenge when you get past a certain number of people. The fourth person you hire is just a different kind of person than the 25th person you hire. The kind of person who comes into a brand-new, make-it-up-as-you-go-along enterprise is very different from the 50th person who says, “Is there a credit union?”

And this is where it starts sounding like I’m looking for someone to date, but I also look for a sense of humor, because that’s really the best indicator of some kind of perspective about the world. And ultimately I won’t hire anybody who can’t write.

Q. Do you glean that from their cover letter or ...?

A. I ask for a writing sample, the best example of your writing. And they’ll say, “Well, do you want a paper I wrote in school, or do you want a memo?” I tell them to give me what they think is the best example of their ability to communicate. It’s just tremendously important, their precision, their vocabulary, their sense of appropriateness of communication. If they’re using texting language in a memo, that’s a bad sign.

Q. Has a writing sample changed your mind about somebody, to the upside or downside?

A. Both ways.

Q. When you’ve started in new leadership roles, what did you say in the first-day speech to the staff?

A. At I.S.S., I thought very deeply about this issue of, how do I get people to be honest with me, because I was a popular fellow worker and I was becoming the boss. That’s a big difference, and I was a little bit in denial for a while that people would still treat me the same way. But the fact is that you are in a different position when you’re deciding who gets the corner office and gets a promotion, and they are going treat you differently.

The thing I remember best about what I said to them was: “If you have a problem, I have a problem. I am vitally concerned with anything that concerns you, but I refuse to be responsible for a problem that is not brought to my attention. So you have the responsibility to bring the problem to my attention.

“However, there are two points you have to remember. One is you are not allowed to bring a problem to me unless you have a proposed solution. So come in with what you think we should do about it. And the second one is, we’re not making money yet. We’re still losing money, and so until that changes the definition of a solution is that it costs less than the problem.”

Q. How do you handle time-management challenges?

A. Well, it helps that I’m A.D.D. I think there are a lot of qualities that are not conducive to doing well in school but are conducive to doing well in management. And so I’m very impatient and that kind of propels me and prevents me from getting too caught up in one thing or another.

I like to have a lot of different things happening at once. I like having a life that has a lot of contrast, and I find that alternating right brain and left brain is tremendously energizing, and that if I try to do one thing too much that I start getting bogged down. So that way, what really is important rises to the top.

I also delegate as much as I can and I jettison as much as I can. I try to ask myself, do I need to do this? Is this something that is really going to help?

Adam Bryant conducted and condensed this interview.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 19, 2009, on page BU2 of the New York edition.

An Executive’s Favorite Films About Management

IN addition to her corporate governance work, Nell Minow also reviews movies online as the “Movie Mom” ( The New York Times asked her to make a list of the best movies she has seen about leadership and management and explain why she likes them.

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005). Must viewing for an almost operatic rise-and-fall story of greed and hubris.

“The Solid Gold Cadillac” (1956). Add a couple of zeros to the numbers and this classic comedy about a small shareholder who takes on a big conglomerate could have been filmed this year. Ripe for a remake!

“The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994). The Coen Brothers’ take on corporations is both spoof and satire, making some shrewd points about success and corruption.

“Roger & Me” (1989). Must viewing in the era of the bailout. Watch for the many indicators of poor business judgment, including a “Me and My Buddy” exhibit with a mechanized worker singing to the machine that put him out of a job. (2001). The go-go madness of the dot-com era amplifies the challenge of finding that fine line between vision and hubris. Unforgettable characters.

“Boiler Room” (2000). Set in an illegal pump-and-dump brokerage, this movie perfectly captures the adrenaline rush of money-making.

“Executive Suite” (1954). A rare movie that focuses on the boardroom with a post-World War II C.E.O. succession struggle between the green-eyeshade C.F.O. Fredric March and the stakeholder proponent William Holden. See also the terrific animated movie “Robots” (2005) for a similar struggle.

“Owning Mahowny” (2003). This fact-based film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Canadian bank executive who embezzled millions of dollars and lost every penny in gambling casinos. What is fascinating is the way that every single person in the film, from the bank loan officers to the auditors and investigators and casino managers to the embezzler himself, are constantly assessing risk.

“The Corporation” (2003). A provocative documentary that measures corporate behavior against the standard diagnostics for human behavior and concludes that it fits the profile of a sociopath.

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1967). This outrageous musical comedy about a mail clerk’s rise to the top of a corporation is less of an exaggeration than it appears.

“Office Space” (1999). A cult classic about a Dilbert-ized world of workers oppressed by an endless series of management fads.

“Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988). A fact-based cautionary tale about corporations subverting the market. See also the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (2006) for an updated version.

“Sabrina” (1954). This elegant confection of a love triangle, with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, also includes one of the most stirring defenses of the public corporation as a force for opportunity and creativity that has ever been put on film.




Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company




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